Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Television: Tru that.

I can't imagine that you’re a reader of a horror blog and you need a rundown of the premise of HBO's camped-up vampire soap True Blood; but, because this post questions an apparent contradiction in the series's backstory, we need to cover the premise anyway.

In the world of True Blood, vampires have recently "come out of the coffin" and now live openly among the people they used to treat as food. Previous to this, the vampires lived in total secrecy. Despite their individual power, this secrecy was necessitated by they fact that the vastly larger human population would, once aroused to the dangers of predation, rally and destroy the vamps while they slept. (Plus, there's something supremely unwise in waging total war against your food. If you win, you're screwed.) What's made this vast sweeping social change possible is the invention of an artificial blood substitute, TruBlood, that can fulfill the nutritional needs of vampires (though it apparently lacks the emotional kick of chomping down on humans). Although TruBlood might be considered a necessary good insomuch as without it vampires go on killing and human must kill them, within the context of the show it is distributed – at least in the Western world – in a manner similar to sports or energy drinks. Now we know from details in the show and the marketing materials that surround it, TruBlood was invented by a Japanese scientist.

Now here's the problem: The creation of TruBlood as a globally available product contradicts the backstory of the show. The concept requires that, for some extended period of time, a substantial number of humans knew about vampires prior to the widespread availability of an alternative blood source. But, contrary to the show's premise, this did not lead to the destruction of vampires.

Although the story of the creation of TruBlood is, I believe, not thoroughly detailed in the show, we get some hints to the drink's origins from other semi-canon sources: notably "marketing materials" HBO created for the TruBlood drink as part of their first season online ad campaign and a 1-ish True Blood prequel promotional comic in which a non-show vampire character discusses the first time he heard of the existence of TruBlood. From this material, we get the following bits of data:

1. TruBlood exists prior to its use as a dietary substitute to human blood and vampire outing occurs prior to TruBlood's worldwide use as such. From the promotional comic, we learn that Japanese vampires are the first to "discover" TruBlood's vampiric use. Convinced that the product's nosferatu-chow application is a paradigm shifter, Japanese vampires start using online forums to contact other vampires and promote the notion of coming out. This is important as it suggests that the notion of coming out occurs prior to the widespread availability of TruBlood. Indeed, the widespread availability of TruBlood, especially as a sort of high-end energy drink, would be predicated on the notion of the notion of a vampire market for just such a product. It might seem obvious, but it bears repeating: It appears that vampires "came out of the coffin" after an alternative to predation existed, but such an alternative was widely available.

2. There are, apparently, cultural distinctions in predation that suggest regional variations in just how "hidden" vampires population might have been prior to the revelation. The comic suggests that Western vampires, prior to the decision to "come out," lived under severe cover. Feeding, it is implied, most typically ended in the death of the victim. This seems to have been a matter of the feeding vampire covering its tracks, as it is well established that vampires can feed without killing. It is assumed that very few, if any, humans in Western culture knew of the existence of vampires. By contrast, there are very nebulous indications that Japanese vampires and their human victims had some sort of more consensual and knowing relationship prior to the revelation of vampires to the living. What exactly their relationship was and what that meant for what the developers of TruBlood is never explicitly stated. It does, however, leave open the possibility that TruBlood's developers may have known of the existence of vampires even prior to working out a viable alternative to predation.

3. That vampires are relatively ravenous. The marketing materials for the TruBlood drink imply that vampires get the itch to drink blood on a nightly basis. In fact, the range given for needing to feed is "nightly" to "six times a night." The show, however, implies that actual feeding occurs less often than this and even suggests – though such reports might be a sort of vampire urban legend – that some vampires can entirely suppress the urge to feed. Let's ballpark it and suggest that, prior to the revelation of vampires to the living world, an average feeding rate was once every six months. The average outer limit of vampire feedings, let's guess, is several years. A vamp can hold back, let's say, three years without feeding if they absolutely must. I'm kinda pulling this figure out of my ass, because we don't have any hard data to go with. Why is this important? Knowing how often vampires must feed, combined with the fact that most pre-revelation feeding led to a human fatality, allows us to start ballparking the human cost of knowing vampires are real, but choosing not to destroy them because you expect a solution to the problem to arrive soon. We need to make another WAG here: How many vampires are there? Despite how common supernatural figures are in the show, I think we're supposed to draw the conclusion that they pretty much a minority everywhere they live. Let's assume that vampires are less than one one-hundredth of one percent of the global population. This is actually an absurdly low number given the number of vampires that appear in the show. But, as you'll see, even this absurdly low number pushes the bounds of belief when we start crunching numbers. If there's a global population of 6,000,000,000 then there are 6 million vampires. Even if every vampire stretched their feeding limits to max, this would mean that, prior to revelation, vampires killed about 2 million humans a year, roughly 170,000 people a month. So, when we say that somebody knew about the existence of vampires, but decided to not destroy them, every month of inaction cost human lives.

Now let's apply some real world factors that I think we can safely assume hold true even if the world of True Blood.

1. Getting a commercial product to a global market takes time. For a comparison, it took Red Bull nearly five years from the moment it penetrated its first foreign market to the time it arrived on US shores. Admittedly, Red Bull isn't a matter of life and death – but one of the curious things about the show it the idea that TruBlood would be distributed like a sports drink rather than, say, like insulin. That's the novelist's choice and not my own.

2. Getting a commercial product to a global market requires a wide and somewhat transparent process that would preclude the possibility of keeping the products sole target demographic, vampires, a secret. We could, I think, assume that vampires found out about the existence of TruBlood through the vampire grapevine. However, even if you assume that your customers were hip, you’d have to convince numerous government and private agencies to go along with your plans.

Add these two together and you've got the following conclusion: The spread of TruBlood must have taken some amount of time, during which the existence of vampires must have been made a public fact.

Armed with this few data points, we can imagine a handful of scenarios involving the development of TruBlood. Instead of writing out a series of hypothetical narratives, I'm going to just ponder a few "what if" options and brainstorm the results of each.

We've determined that TruBlood was functional before vampires began debating assimilation into human culture. However, the hint that Japanese vampires were not a rigorously hidden as their Western counterparts opens up the idea that vampires might have had some hand in the creation TruBlood. This could have either taken the form of approaching the human creators of the artificial blood after it was complete and pitching the drink idea or one can imagine that vampires actually influenced the artificial blood's creation. The latter scenario does not, I think, require that vampires reveal themselves right away. Through the use of enthralled humans and the use of the vampire's mind-control "glamour," one can imagine that a small group of people – say a couple of key researchers – could be influenced to steer the project into directions most likely to produce a dietary substitute. Still, sooner or later, vampires would have to convince medical companies and beverage companies to start producing and packaging the artificial blood in a manner consistent with its current form in the show. At that moment, even if the existence of vampires was not widely known, at the very least several people at a handful of fairly large-sized companies would know of the existence of vampires. Further, it would be in the vamps best interest to keep the circle tight at this point. Until TruBlood is globally available, humans and vampire must necessarily conflict. Also, there's always a chance that the scientists and suits might react negatively, requiring the vamps to damage control the secrecy breech. The smaller the circle, the easier that would be. So let's assume vamp existence was reveled on a need to know basis in these early days.

This might not seem like a big deal, but it means, in essence, that everybody who knew at this point had to understand that, while their companies quietly sat on the fact of vampire existence, a truly horrific number of people were dying. Let's just look at the shortest scenario. Vampires are a total secret, preventing their destruction, until a global near consensus is reached to reveal themselves to humans. They reveal themselves to a small group of scientists, corporate suit types, a few bankers, and, most likely, a government official or two. Everybody who needs to understand why a company would want to release med tech as a sports drink. Keeping the numbers small as I think they could be, we're looking at a group of several hundred people working together for about four years (that's how long I'm guessing it would take to get people to believe in vampires; determine that the wisest course of action was assimilation and not total war; test the product; revamp, so to speak, production; and get government approval, assuming the approval was fast tracked due to the unique situation). During this time people are diligently working away on TruBlood, hiding the existence of vampires. At the same time, vampires, even if they are onboard with the overall plan, could not be certain that the end results will work out. For vampires, you could max out your eating limits, but you'd still have to assume that feedings that ended in death would be preferable to predations that could leave witnesses to your existence. You'd have to keep killing. Over the course of that initial ramp up, we can assume that over 8 million people would have died.

After that initial stage, I don't believe it would possible to keep the existence of vampires secret. The submission of TruBlood for international market approvals would inevitably lead to the question of why humans would drink fake blood. The spread of TruBlood as a drink requires that all the agents – a rapidly increasing network of people distributed widely and therefore unlikely to be influenced supernaturally by vamps – at all the stages understand the real purpose of the drink. Using the Red Bull model, it would take another, say, five years for the drink to spread around the globe. During these five years, humans are aware of the fact of vampire existence and vampires do not yet have a widely available substitute to human predation. Also, to survive, vamps would have still been feeding. However, at this point, we can no longer assume that most or all vampires would decide that murdering their victims was the wisest course of action. Some vampires might well have feed on willing victims, stopping short of murdering them. Others might have partially feed on unwilling victims, figuring that the big masquerade was no longer in danger and they could use supernatural advantages to confuse potential witnesses to their personal crime. Still, others may have simply continued to attack and kill humans, figuring that it is simply the best way to avoid human attention until such time as an alternative is easily available and human reprisals are unlikely. (Which brings up another unlikely factor in the decision making process that must have gone on: Just a vampires would have to assume the possibility that humans might not go for the plan, humans would have to assume a voluntary stop in predation was far from certain. In fact, in the show, predation still regularly occurs. Why would humans go through all this trouble just to secure an false peace that ensures that they'll always lose any interaction?) Still, even if we assume that vampire related deaths took a plunge, feedings would have to go on. Given that, by the time show takes place, voluntary feedings are only starting to become faddish, we can assume they weren't the dominant form of vampire feeding. Let's say, though I find it unlikely, that nearly half of all feedings were voluntary during this time. That would still mean that more than 10,200,000 people were attacked, some percentage fatally.

Even though we can't know the details, we can confidently can state that no matter how TruBlood was developed and spread, it required that public and private institutions around the world to work together to produce, approve, distribute, and sell the new product, during which time humans were aware of the fact that vampires were killing humans at a million people a month.

The question is: Why would any government have allowed that to happen? It makes no sense. Take the United States (please!). Assuming that vamp's are equally distributed among the human population, then there are only 300,000 vamps in the US. That's not even enough votes to carry a city election here in New York. Yet between the time Japan reveals their existence as a fact and the time TruBlood can act as a complete substitute to predation, those vampires would have offed more than 400,000 people. Why would the US government do such a thing? It would be like allowing serial killers to operate freely because a Japanese corporation says it is bringing to market a sports drink that will definitively cure their homicidal impulses, during which time they will actually kill more than their own number.

Following the show's own premises, the revelation of vampires, regardless of the existence of a food alternative, should have led to a conflict between vampires and humans that ended either in the wholesale destruction of one (vampires) or both groups (vampires and humans). That it didn't makes about as much sense as glittery vampires.


Brian said...

You're forgetting that vampires are the "Beautiful People", my friend. Never underestimate the allure of a vampiric booty-call.

Another question that haunts my fevered dreams is, are "Twilight", "True Blood" and other glam-vams dead? This rather unattractive aspect (not to mention chilly shag) seems to rarely come up and would certainly be off-putting to some, I would think. "He's sexy and cold, he sucks the wrong parts, he's a corpse...get the fuck off me, dude!"

Just a little meditation over my morning cuppa.

(Hilarious analysis this post, Curt.)

Brian said...

Oops, sorry CRWM, forgot whose blog and vampire post I was addressing as I make my morning rounds.

Guess I need a second cup.

CRwM said...


No problem, I've been called much worse than "Curt."

I'm glad you found the humor in it. I worried that it was too relentlessly straight-faced.

As for the "beautiful people" thing, I've always found that the worst thing about the vampire mythos. Like the elves of Tolkien, they always seem too obviously favored by their creators. It gets tedious. They're like the NYC Prep kids of the monster world.

Ms Harker said...

I agree with Brian, the issue of a fang-night stand touching a ladies delicate parts with their icy mits is somewhat perplexing, unless its summer ;) However, your numbers do my head in and are hilarious! I wonder if the books offer an alternate to your rats and stats?

CRwM said...

Ms Harker,

Perhaps its all for the best that they are numbingly cold. After all, they are essentially jabbing their lovers with needles. It might be the only way that experience could be pleasurable.

As for the books - I'd left them out of this article because I've never read even a sample of them, so I didn't think it would be fair to make assumptions about them. They might very well contain some of the info I've had to guess at.

Mel said...

Um...awesome? Seriously, this analysis was fun to read and gave me food for thought. I've read all of the books and, of course, watched every episode, yet this train of thought never chugged into my particular station.

For argument's sake, though, I propose that not all vampire feedings ended in death. Up until the modern era, I think it would have been fairly easy to glamor a human, feed, then let them go with just those marks for them to wonder about (and probably hide so as not to be burned at the stake). As you noted, on the show we've seen vampires with "pets" from whom they feed over long periods of time. I doubt this is a post-coming out phenomenon. There are plenty of humans who, for whatever reason, would give themselves up to be a long-term feeding partner (I've received emails along those lines), thus negating the need to feed and/or kill several humans during that span.

Regarding the mass production and introduction of TruBlood on the global marketplace, who's to say that vampires aren't holding jobs as researchers, bankers, corporate suits, and government officials? ;)

Thanks for the stimulating discussion!


CRwM said...


Thanks for reading it. I'm glad you had fun kicking around these ideas with me.

You bring up two really good points.

Certainly, if we want to get more precise numbers, we'd have to account for vampires practicing some sort of "human husbandry," including non-fatal feedings and herd raising. The main vampire character in the promo comic makes it clear that he spent a considerable amount of time in the "bad old days" hiding bodies. Killing and hiding bodies makes good sense in some much as it circle of evidence and witnesses to a minimum. Still, the same book also suggests that Japanese vampires and humans played by very different rules. I have to ballpark it here, but a more exact number would have to take such things into account.

That said, I'm not sure that would change the story much. We'd have to believe that humans would have been okay with being the unwitting or potentially enslaved food sources of vampires. "You've been doing what to me? Oh, well as long as you don't kill me I guess." From the viewer's perspective, we get that some people do this voluntarily, but the fact that vamps can also enslave people makes the idea a hard sell if you're trying to convince humans that vampires are not a threat.

(I bet you do get all manner of crazy email, by the way. You are a braver horror fan than I.)

I'm glad you brought up the "vamps doing it for themselves" scenario. I left it out because I didn't believe there was any evidence for it. Also, even we key players in position, there's too much daytime interaction and investigation and so on to keep it all under wraps. I think vamps would hide it for a long as possible, but sooner or later, you've got to let the cat out bag because the products very existence demands the existence of vampires.

That said, I like the following idea, despite the fact that there's no evidence for it at all: What if vampires created and globally distributed TruBlood over the course of decades and the whole "product" idea was just a way to make humans feel comfortable that they were now safe. The commercials, the marketing, the signs, the vamps don't need them because they make and distribute the drink themselves to everybody (which would also explain why, despite the apparently monopoly, TruBlood remains affordable). Instead, that act to serve as constant reminders to the humans that vampires need not eat them.

Just an out-of-left-field idea.